by Cathy Stenquist
“Be proud of your place in the journey. You are not an impostor; you are the real thing. Welcome.” —Josh Funk, NESCBWI coordinator
JOSH’S WORDS JUMPSTARTED MY LEARNING for the weekend.
Lesson #1—Find a buddy.
I arrived early to park and check in. At the registration desk, I spied one of The Loft’s light blue lanyards, worn by Alice Fulgione, who greeted me with a hug. I felt like the new kid at school, latching onto a friend to feel at ease. After lunch at the MVP Lounge, we used our maps to find our classes.
Lesson #2—When in Rome…
I bravely signed up for 3 optional activities. First, I dined with 50 fellow writers from the 12 x 12 Challenge picture book writing community. It was very special to meet those I had only known online, and holding business cards in my nametag proved handy.
I also signed up for Pitchapalooza, in which names are drawn for the opportunity to pitch your book to a panel of professionals. I both hoped and feared my name would be called. Though I was not chosen, the variety of pitches and the fantastic feedback from The Book Doctors and the agents were enlightening. As a bonus, the panel included the agent I was to meet for my manuscript critique the next day. She was so knowledgeable and interesting that I felt much less nervous.
Finally, I decided to go for the open mic activity. Sitting in the back, manuscript face down on my lap, I listened to each brave soul. Encouraged by our host, I bravely stepped up to the mic and began reading. With a few lines left before the exciting conclusion, the 3-minute buzzer was met with shouts of “We need to know what happens!” After I shared the ending, laughter filled the room. Success!
Lesson #3—Listen well and write quickly.
The inspirational words of author/illustrator Melissa Sweet, and authors Jane Yolen and Linda Mullaly Hunt will stick with me:
“Take what has not existed before and put it out into the world. Open up and share your longings, your fears, your heart. Be honest, authentic, and true. This will change lives… maybe even your own.” —Lynda Mullaly Hunt
“If blessed with a great idea, make it sing…don’t shortchange it. Persistence is the name of the game. Don’t ‘move on’ from rejection, ‘move up’ with what you learned.” —Jane Yolen
“Design is not just about making things; it’s about making things happen. We don’t have to know what we’re going to make; we just need to get started! Persistence trumps talent.”—Melissa Sweet
Lesson #4—Keep track of time!
I went to the boardroom to nervously await my critique. Authors and friends who stopped by made everyone waiting feel a little more confident. Unfortunately, I got distracted and realized I was late for my critique! Luckily the agents were also running late. My agent could not have been nicer, giving me some great suggestions to enrich my MS and mailing me her notes. The experience wasn’t intimidating, but informative and positive.
Lesson #5—You may be so touched you’ll cry.
Over the weekend I attended nine courses, met several amazing authors—Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, Hazel Mitchell, and Arielle Eckstut—talked to agents, and even had a chat in an elevator with an editor! The opportunity to connect and learn was around every corner.
Tami Charles offered a passionate, interactive class on nonfiction, Molly B. Burnham spoke about using humor in your writing, and Brian Lies explained what illustrators want writers to know. The Book Doctors explained options for publishing, then focused, in a way I never had heard before, on the important role your pitch plays—not just in the query but in the entire publishing process.
By far, Mr. Schu’s session was my favorite. He told a beautiful story about author Kate DiCamillo who kept a piece of paper in her pocket with the delicious word “capacious” on it until she finally found the perfect place to use it. He offered this quote from her: “Always remain genuine and authentic. We have been given a sacred task of making hearts large through our stories.” He added: “Don’t do what’s best for ourselves, but what is best for the children.”
We ended by reading together “I Wish You More” by late author, Amy Krouse Rosenthal. There was not a dry eye in the place. Amy brought hope, kindness, and love into all she wrote. Her words will continue to influence me as a writer and as a person.
I told Mr. Schu I was feeling a bit “capacious” myself as my heart was so full of his beautiful words. I thanked him for reminding us what being a writer for children is really about. That it’s not about us, our precious manuscripts, or the ups and downs to get published, but rather it’s really all about…the children.
What we are writing will be the books they check out, the worlds they will immerse themselves in, the lessons they will learn, the stories they will remember and discuss with friends long after we are gone. We have been given a measure of talent and need to really think of how we are using that gift. I look to authors such as Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Peter Reynolds, Brian Lies and Mélanie Watt as mentors to create books with deeper meaning.
Lesson #6—Do it!
I encourage you to attend an SCBWI conference near you. It is an investment worth making. A good first step for only $50 is NESCBWI’s “Encore,” a one-day fall conference featuring 5 of the top conference classes plus lunch! Learning a little about picture book writing before attending the larger conference helped give me a foundation which made what I heard even more meaningful.
Lesson #7—There will be homework.
Next steps. I will begin applying the critique feedback to my manuscript and get that pitch written. I was amazed to learn that some faculty are opening submissions to attendees. I will use the shared business cards to expand my social network, and begin planning my website. But the best takeaway: new friends made. I look forward to speaking with them online until we meet next year and know that when we spy each other across the conference room, I will feel immediately at home.
Three children, five goldfish, one rabbit, and three cats later, Cathy is embracing her empty nest and filling it with creative projects such as recycled collage art and writing children’s picture books. She is an active member of SCBWI, 12×12 Challenge, and The Writers’ Loft. Cathy is the author of “A Note from Heaven,” published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope and Miracles, and a contributor to WellesleyWestonMagazine. You can explore her writing and other creative and domestic endeavors on her blog Bread & With It at cathystenquist.tumblr.com.